It’s no longer a surprise to hear Paris Saint-Germain dominating the Ligue 1. The gulf-owned club are pretty much on whole another level compared to the rest of the clubs in Ligue 1. Aside from the brilliant individual performances of the players in the star-studded team, the leadership and genius of Thomas Tuchel has certainly brought them much success in the last two seasons, especially domestically.
This season they also looked rather promising in Europe before football came to a complete halt due to the current situation. Tuchel and his men completed an impressive comeback to knock German giants Borussia Dortmund out of the competition, securing a place in the quarter-finals of UEFA Champions League for the first time since season 2015/16.
Tuchel originally preferred using a 4-3-3 formation early in the campaign whilst occasionally also rotating around 4-1-4-1 and 4-2-3-1 in the process. What can be seen in terms of formation preferences this season is that Tuchel started to abandon the use of three-man backline in favour of a variety of back-four formations. As you can see in the picture above, Tuchel only uses formations 3-4-3, 3-5-2, and 3-4-2-1 rarely with a combined amount of around 7% this season.
Starting from around halfway through the campaign, Tuchel starts to deploy his team more often and more consistently with a 4-4-2 formation which can also turn into a 4-2-2-2 with the wingers seemingly occupying central spaces more often and turning into 10s.
Despite using several different formations throughout this season, PSG’s tactics and style of play don’t really change much under Tuchel with their possession-heavy and aggressive approach in both offence and defence still very much apparent in every game they play.
Fluid positional play
At first glance, PSG’s positional play when they’re in possession may look pretty complicated. The principles, however, can be explained in a pretty simple manner.
PSG are a possession-based team who tend to start from the back and work the ball around to create gaps patiently. They’re, however, very effective with possession. Once that opening has been created and there’s opportunity to play the ball towards a dangerous area to attack the opposing team, they’ll do so with a very swift manner.
Tuchel’s side mainly look to attack down the middle and create most of their chances from around central areas and half-spaces. It’s, not rare to see them fashioning chances from wide areas as well though. Usually, due to the lack of time and space down the middle, PSG will look to utilise quick short one-two combinations between players in order to maintain possession in advanced areas.
PSG mainly look to play from the back with the goalkeeper mostly looking to make a short distribution towards the nearest centre-backs. Although sometimes against opponents who like to block high and press aggressively when they start from the goal kick, the goalkeeper may try to play a long ball forward, directing the ball towards the striker with the strongest aerial ability (usually Mauro Icardi or Edinson Cavani).
In the image above you can see how they usually start in a goal kick situation. Centre-backs split wide and the two full-backs start a bit higher and wider. The two full-backs alongside the two pivots will quickly drop in order to provide support at the back if deemed necessary. The goalkeeper is usually involved in this build-up, creating numerical superiority at the back and helping the backline circulate the ball around. The goalkeeper will also help relieve the pressure and restart the attack by making himself available as a passing option if the ball carrier is pressed and unable to progress
In this case, there are several ways and shapes that they may use in order to create numerical and positional advantages to help them progress the ball and break through the opposing team’s defence. They may stay with a back-two with four players in front of the backline (two full-backs high and wide and two pivots in the centre), create a back-three (with one or two pivots in front of the backline), or even a back-four sometimes. Tuchel’s side are very flexible and everything pretty much depends on how the opposing team defend against them and how can they break the structure and exploit their weaknesses. The two most prominent shapes they usually take up are 3-1-6 (which you can see in the image above) and 2-4-4.
In the image above you can see PSG creating a back-three in the build-up with one pivot (Idrissa Gueye) staying centrally in front of the backline, meanwhile, Marco Verratti dropped and sat beside the two centre-backs. With Monaco playing (and pressing) with a front-two in that game, creating a back-three essentially helped them circulate the ball in a much easier fashion due to them being numerically superior (3v2). The full-backs were allowed to sit high and wide to stretch the opposing defence while the wingers mainly occupied the half-spaces and will often look to float around the central areas to exploit spaces between the second and third line of Monaco.
Some other times, they may choose to play with a back-two instead with a line of four in front of the backline, creating what seems to be a 2-4-4 (or 2-4-2-2). With Bordeaux pressing with only one man up front, PSG were comfortable playing with just two at the back while the full-backs sat high and wide as usual, and the pivots both sat in front of the back-two.
PSG’s fluidity and flexibility are not only seen at the back but can also be seen upfront. Their front-four are very flexible and their positional rotations may cause chaos inside the opposing half. You can see in the image above that the two wingers would look to sit narrower and float around in central spaces to exploit the space in between the midfield and defensive lines of the opposing team.
The two strikers, meanwhile, would occupy the channels in between two defenders (usually against teams with four-man backlinks, the channel between the central defender and full-back). This may create some dilemmas for the opposing backline. If the full-back stepped out to mark tightly or to press, then space would surely open up and the striker will then make an outward run to exploit the space in the wide area.
The same thing can be seen above. As you can see, the diagonal inward-outward movements from the front-four can really disrupt the opposing team’s defensive structure. By occupying certain positions and actively rotating around rather than being stationary, PSG can create dilemmas for the opposing backline which can potentially create separations and players in certain positions may be unmarked and available for a line-breaking pass.
Their way of playing out of pressure may also differ according to how their opposition defend or depending on the situation on the field. If the pivots are free or not tightly marked, then they’re usually the primary option to pass to.
PSG mainly will look to play through the middle. Though logically, finding space down the middle may be rather difficult, Tuchel’s side always have a way to create spaces as well as separations. In the image above, for example, upon seeing Verratti receiving the ball, Neymar quickly dropped.
At the same time, the left-back (Juan Bernat) made a run towards the opposite direction (moved up the field) in order to confuse the full-back and ultimately free up Neymar in between the lines.
Neymar then moved to the centre and asked Verratti to give him the ball there rather than staying stationary in the pocket of space. The Italian playmaker saw the signal and played a perfect ball towards Neymar who was free down the middle, and as you can see in the second image above, he was immediately met with several good passing options. However, in the end, Neymar took too long on the ball and gave possession away to Bordeaux.
However, at times, the two pivots are marked tightly or being handled aggressively by the opposing team. In that case, they’ll primarily play the ball towards the nearest full-back and look to play around the block instead of through the block as you can see in the image above. With Monaco defending compactly and staying narrow, central areas are usually inaccessible. However, this allowed PSG to exploit the wide areas instead and penetrate the opposing team’s defence from there. From there, the attacking full-back may choose to run along the touchline and cross the ball into the box from the byline or play the ball to the winger in the half-space instead.
A key part of their possession game is their pass and move rule and the creation of passing triangles. Again, this is mainly to create spaces and separations which can allow them to progress the ball and penetrate the opposing defence.
As mentioned earlier in this analysis as well, PSG are patient when in possession. This meant that if there’s really no other way to progress then they’ll move the ball back rather than forcing their way in. This usually triggers the press of the opposing team which Tuchel’s side like to exploit.
In the image above, for example, right-back Thilo Kehrer found no way to progress, so he passed the ball back to Verratti instead. The latter then passed the ball towards Marquinhos then immediately moved behind the back of Bordeaux left-winger Samuel Kalu, Kehrer also dropped slightly to move further from his marker. Marquinhos then played the ball to Kehrer and then moved forward. After receiving the ball from Marquinhos, Kehrer passed the ball into space in front of Verratti, freeing themselves of the Bordeaux pressure on the flank and allowing them to progress and attack.
You can see in the second image above that the three players have effectively rotated their positions whilst also keeping the passing triangle.
Aggressive pressing and high block
Aside from their highly attacking approach, Tuchel also instructed his team to defend and press high.
PSG’s defence mainly utilise a mix of man and passing lane oriented approach in defence. Their main aim is to disrupt the opposing team’s build-up from as early as possible and potentially win the ball after forcing the ball carrier into making a mistake or after forcing the ball to be played towards predictable areas and activating their pressing traps.
Just like in the attack, Tuchel’s side always look to create numerical and positional advantages when in defence by staying compact and compressing space by concentrating their players in certain areas.
Above you can see how Tuchel’s side structure themselves in a 4-4-2 high block. The defensive line is high and they’ll also look to engage high up the pitch, looking to press the opposing backline mainly looking to force them to play long although if an opportunity arises, they will look to win the ball and quickly break forward as well.
PSG usually will look to have one man pressing the ball (usually also putting the opposing playmaker in his cover shadow whilst closing the opposing ball carrier down). While one man presses the ball, the other teammates block the access to nearby teammates by marking them tightly or simply blocking the passing lane. This is to isolate the ball carrier and also force the ball carrier into passing the ball towards predictable areas.
As you can see in the image above, the presser also steers the opposing ball carrier wider with the ball, restricting space and effectively isolating him. At times the winger will also participate in pressing the ball carrier in order to outnumber him and pile more pressure. You can see in the image above that the PSG right-winger Ángel Di María left his man to close down the ball carrier (whilst still putting his man in his cover shadow). This, however, doesn’t happen very often as PSG’s wingers are usually aware that doing so may run the risk of PSG’s full-back being outnumbered (1v2) against the opposing team’s wide players which can be dangerous if the opposing ball carrier managed to play a good long pass despite the pressure from PSG’s attackers.
With no nearby options available, the ball carrier usually will opt to pass the ball back to the goalkeeper which will trigger PSG to push forward and pile more pressure or he usually will play a long ball instead.
If the opposing ball carrier plays a long ball into a player in front of PSG’s defence, then Tuchel’s side will quickly collapse onto the ball to compress space and press to win the second ball. If the long ball is directed towards space behind the defence, either the goalkeeper will rush out or the defender will try to get onto it to recover possession depending on who’s the closest to get to the ball.
Some other times, especially against teams with highly proficient ball-playing defenders, the ball carrier will instead try to dribble past the pressure himself but due to the high risk of losing the ball, not many players will take the risk against PSG.
What makes PSG really solid in defence despite their tendency to defend very high up the pitch is that they’re highly effective in counter-pressing.
Their effectiveness in counter-pressing can be attributed to the fact that they tend to pile a lot of players inside the opposing half. Often they’d have eight players inside the opposing half while only two centre-backs sit just behind the halfway line.
At first glance, this may seem dangerous due to the fact that they can potentially be outnumbered when the opposing team are on the break due to the lack of players in rest of the defence. However, having most of their players inside the opposing half not only helps them maintain possession and move the ball around in advanced areas, but they’ll be able to quickly press and compress space in order to restrict the opposing team’s movements after winning the ball and limit their options in order to delay the attack and potentially win the ball again in an advanced position.
In the image above you can see that Borussia Dortmund just recovered the ball and tried to quickly restart the attack and hit their opponents on the break with Roman Bürki quickly throwing the ball to Achraf Hakimi. The Moroccan right-back was immediately met with pressure from left-back Bernat. As you can see, while one player pressed the ball, the others try to limit the options by marking the near options man for man or cutting off his passing lane. Their approach against the opposing team can be quite aggressive and they won’t shy away from making a challenge to stop the ball.
With Ligue 1 already confirmed to end prematurely, Tuchel won his second Ligue 1 title with Les Parisiens, finishing above arch-rivals Marseille with 68 points (2.52 points per game) while the latter finished with 56 points (2.00 points per game).
Blessed with an extremely talented and individually gifted squad, Tuchel always have an advantage going against pretty much every Ligue 1 team, as they’re clearly on a whole another level when it comes to overall player quality. It’s not a surprise anymore that they’re eventually going to dominate the league this season. However, what many may not notice is that PSG have shown some improvements under Tuchel. The improvements may not be very dramatic but nevertheless very crucial.
PSG have been extremely solid and productive at the same time this season. With the current squad and under the management of Tuchel, they have shown a lot of promise. They even qualified for the quarter-finals of UEFA Champions League for the first time since 2015/16 when they were still under Laurent Blanc. It’ll be interesting to see how PSG will do in their third season under Tuchel, especially in Europe. Domestically, there’s a big chance they’ll dominate again.